The Search for Nuclear Stabilization in Southern Asia

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With support from the National Nuclear Security Administration and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Stimson Center seeks to analyze the sources of nuclear danger in southern Asia and to suggest ideas for remedial action that may warrant consideration. 

The stability-instability paradox predicts that offsetting nuclear weapon capabilities can induce caution against crossing the nuclear threshold, while also abetting risk-taking at lower levels of violence.  The security-insecurity paradox is not immutable. Indeed, the record of U.S.-Soviet and Soviet-Chinese relations suggest that, after an initial period marked by nuclear-tinged crises, bilateral relations can become more settled.  In the U.S.-Soviet case, the process of détente was uneven, but nuclear dangers were effectively reduced through sustained dialogue that produced confidence-building measures (CBMs) and, with the passage of time, treaties governing the most powerful weapon systems in superpowers’ arsenals.  These arrangements were noticeably absent in the Soviet-Chinese case.  In this pairing, the nuclear-armed rivals appear to have relied primarily on tacit understandings.  The absence of treaty arrangements in the Soviet-Chinese case is understandable due to the disparity in the sizes of their nuclear forces; the absence of formally agreed CBMs and nuclear risk-reduction measures (NRRMs) is harder to explain. 

The India-Pakistan case may well evolve in still another way, mixing some CBMs and NRRMs with tacit understandings to stabilize bilateral nuclear relations.  Formal treaties governing nuclear forces will be quite difficult to negotiate in this case not because of force imbalances ­- since Pakistan appears intent on competing with India – but rather because of New Delhi’s need to factor in  Beijing’s nuclear capabilities and intentions.  Bilateral treaties regulating a nuclear arms competition are difficult enough; treaties regulating a triangular nuclear dynamic are even harder.  

Several factors could promote a more stable nuclear rivalry in southern Asia with the passage of time.  For example, as nuclear arsenals grow and become more diversified, fears of surprise attack could diminish if rivals perceive that their deterrents have become more secure.  This did not occur in the U.S.-Soviet case because Moscow and Washington pursued prompt, counterforce targeting capabilities alongside the growth and diversification of their nuclear arsenals.  Even with growing counterforce capabilities, some stabilization could occur if particularly neuralgic issues are resolved or set aside.  Thus, in the U.S.-Soviet case, Washington and Moscow reached a modus vivendi over Berlin and Cuba.  This did not, however, ameliorate their buildup of nuclear arms, which was driven by mutually reinforcing domestic politics, vested bureaucratic and institutional interests, and concerns over the national security consequences of falling behind in the strategic competition.  A third stabilizing factor was the negotiation and proper implementation of CBMs and NRRMs, beginning with reliable channels of communication during crises.  These measures enjoyed widespread support even among deep skeptics of détente.   

India and Pakistan began to negotiate and implement CBMs and NRRMs far earlier in their nuclear rivalry than did the United States and the Soviet Union.  Moreover, both Pakistan and India continue to assert that separate custodial arrangements for warheads and launchers retain stabilizing value.  (In the United States, the early practice of keeping the custody of nuclear warheads separate from the custody of their launchers was quickly changed in deference to presumed military requirements.)  If existing CBMs and NRRMs are properly implemented and expanded, and if great value continues to be placed on maintaining nuclear forces at low levels of readiness, important elements of a nuclear stabilization regime can remain in place on the subcontinent. 

The recurrence of crises on the subcontinent works at cross purposes with nuclear stabilization measures.  Another key factor working to the detriment of nuclear stabilization is the extent to which Pakistan and India supplement their counter-value targeting capabilities with counterforce capabilities against high-value military targets.  The overseers of India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear deterrents have already decided to pursue a panoply of ballistic and cruise missiles.  To what extent they intend to secure counterforce options – or the extent to which they could avoid this slippery slope, if they wished to do so – remains unclear. 

Incremental additions of counterforce capabilities would be hard to resist because of the complex, triangular nature of the nuclear competition in southern Asia and because of domestic drivers.  The introduction of ballistic missile defenses could be expected to prod further increments of nuclear offenses.  Greater impetus to military programs would also result from a downturn in Sino-Indian relations or recurring crises between India and Pakistan.  

Nuclear risk reduction strategies in southern Asia are likely to remain constrained by longstanding political and structural impediments.  India and China appear content to place a low priority on settling their border dispute. Bilateral talks on nuclear stability and confidence building will remain difficult to undertake as long as Beijing refuses to accord New Delhi the standing such talks merit.  Bilateral nuclear risk-reduction measures are not easy; the triangular dimensions of nuclear interactions among China, India and Pakistan constitute an even more challenging geometry.  In the absence of settled borders and regional discussions on nuclear stabilization, the moderating influence of improved trade relations can become even more important.      

The bottom line of this analysis leaves national leaders in a conundrum: The wild card of Islamic extremism in southern Asia increases the urgency of nuclear stabilization measures, while making their proper implementation more challenging.


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